|Where the Forest Murmers,
Vol VI, by Fiona Macleod
The foam of the White Tide of blossom has been flung across the
land. It is already ebbing from the blackthorn hedges; the wildcherry herself is no longer
so immaculately snow-white. It drifts on the wind that has wooed the wild-apple. The
plum is like a reef swept with surf. Has not the laurustinus long been as cream-dappled
as, later, the elder will be in every hedgerow or green lane or cottage-garden? Not that
all the tides of blossom are like fallen snow: is not the applebloom itself flushed with
the hearts of roses? Think of the flowering almond, that cloud of shell-heart pink: of the
delicate bloom of the peach that lives on the south wind: of the green-gold of the sallow
catkins : of the blazing yellow of the gorse: of the homely flowering-currant, which even
by mid-March had hung out her gay tangle of pinky blooms: of the purple-red of the
deadnettle in the ditch, and of the ruddy-hued fallaways of the poplar overhead. I wonder
if in most places the flowering-currant is no more than an ordinary shrub. Here, where I
write, there are several small trees of it, taller than the general growth of the lilac,
tall as the laburnum, though at the time of their unloosening the one had not revealed her
delicate mauve and white, while the other was still a miser of the countless gold he will
now soon be spreading upon the wind. The pink blooms, carmine-ended where the five or six
unfolded blossoms hang like fruit, droop in a roseal shower, as innumerous as the golden
drops of the labnrnum-rain or the suspended snowflakes of the white lilac themselves. The
brown bees have long discovered this flusht Eden; their drowsily sweet murmurous drone is
as continuous as though these slow-swaying pastures were of linden-bloom and the hour the
heart of Summer.
Everywhere the largesse of Spring has followed her first penury in the scanty snow of the blackthorn on bare boughs. What, by the way, is the origin of the phrase "blackthorn-sorrow"? I heard it again recently, as though to say that Summer was safely at band so that now there was no more fear of the blackthorn-sorrow. However, as later I hope to deal with the complex folklore of the Thorn, I need not let the subject delay me now, except to say that in the North-West Highlands I have heard the blackthorn called Bròn Lochlannach, the Northman's woe, literally Norse or Norland-sorrow or mourning, . . . a legendary designation to which there is, I believe, a North-German analogue. The idea here is that the blackthorn sprang from the blood of the slain Norse invaders, the "pagans from Lochlin" of mediaeval Gaelic story. In many parts of the kingdom it is looked on askanse, and cut sprays of it brought into a house are considered as a menace of ill, as a death-token even; and it has been surmised, that this is due to some confused memory of a druidical or other early symbolism of the commingling of winter and summer, in other words of life and death, in the blackthorn's blossom-strewn leafless branches. It may be so, but does not seem to me likely, for by far the greater part of flower and tree folklore has little to do with such subtle conceptions. Too many of these are as vague and fantastical as that legend which says that one must not taste of the root of the peony if a woodpecker be in sight, or else the penalty may be blindness: a safe prognostication!
It is that other thorn which holds us now, that lovely torch of blossom which has taken to itself the name of the lovers'-month. Not that the hawthorn has unchallenged use of May as a name. In Devon the white lilac is often called the May, and elsewhere, too, the "layloc" is spoken of as May-bloom. The laurustinus, again, is thus named in some parts of Somerset, and I have heard lilies-of-the-valley called May-blossoms. In Scotland I have often heard the hawthorn-in-bloom called Queen of the May and even Queen of the Meadow, though neither name properly belongs to it, and the latter is the inalienable title of the meadowsweet. But of all wildblossom nothing surpasses in mass that of the hawthorn. It, truly, is the foam of the groves and hollows. From the south to the north it flows in a foaming tide. "Bride of the world" I have heard it called in a Gaelic song. and long ago an ancient Celtic bard spoke of it lovingly . . . " white is every green thorn, and honeysweet."
But it is of the Apple I want to write just now, she whose coronal of blossom is surely loveliest of all fruitbearers: Bride of the Wind we may say---"Persephone herself " as a modern Italian poet calls her.
In the Highlands to-day the Apple (Ubhal), or the Wild-Apple or Crab-Apple (Ubhal-fiadhaich), is still common in woods and by stream-sides. The bitter juice of the fruit is still used for sprains and bruises, and to-day as of old the Gaelic poet has no more frequent comparison of his sweetheart's charm than to the delicate-hued, sweet-smelling apple---eg.,
where the poet praises his Isabel of the yellow tresses and rose-flusht cheek and kissing-mouth sweet as an apple. Once the apple was far more common in Scotland than it is now. An old authority, Solinus, says that Moray and all the north-east abounded in the third century with fruit-bearing apple-trees, and Buchanan even speaks of Inverness-shire as being unsurpassed for the fruit. Visitors to Iona, to-day, who see it a sandy treeless isle, may hardly credit that it was once famous for its apple-orchards, and that, too, as late as the ninth century, till the monks of Iona were slain and the orchards destroyed by the ravaging vikings out of Norway. Beautiful Arran, too, was once lovelier still, so lovely with apple-blossom and ruddy yellow fruit that it was called Emhain Abhlach, the Avalon of the Gael.
To come in a waste piece of tangled woods, or on some lapwing-haunted pasture-edge, or in the healthy wilderness, on the wild-apple in bloom, is to know one of the most thrilling experiences of the Spring. As a rule the wild-apple stands solitary. Seen thus, it has often something of the remote element of dreamland. I came once, in the heart of a beechwood, on a single treeof laburnum, in full glory of dense unfallen gold. How did it come to be there, what wind had first brought it on the tides of birth, what friendly nurture had led the seedling to the sapling and the sapling to lovely youth? I wondered; but most I wondered at the sudden beauty, at the unexpected revelation of vistas other than those of the woodland, at the unloosening of the secret gates of dreams and the imagination. Faerie stood open. Angus Òg, the Celtic Apollo Chrusokumos, the golden Balder of the Gael, stood yonder just a moment ago, surely? Yonder, in the sunlit greenness, Midir of the Dew it was who passed swiftly among the bat-wings of disguising shadows? Was that Findabair going like a moonbeam, there in the sea-caverns of the green leaf ? Or was it Fand, whose laughter the storm-thrush caught, long, long ago? Surely that was an echo of old forgotten song in the gloom of the beeches? Could it be Fedelm of the Sìdhe, "the young girl of the mouth of red berries, with voice sweeter than the strings of a curved harp, and skin showing like the snow of a single night"? And there, vanishing in the sunlit cataract of gold itself, like a rainbow behind falling water, was not that Niamh of the Golden Tresses? . . . Niamh, whose beauty was so great that the poets of the Other-world and those who died of love for her called her Love Entangled, she whose beauty filled three hundred years in the single hour that Fionn thought he was with her, in the days when the ancient world had suddenly grown old, and the little bell of Patrick the Christ-Bringer had tinkled sorrow and desolation and passing away across the Irish hills. Up among the devious green pathways of the travelling wood what lost king's voice was that? . . .
. . . what poet of long ago, living in a flame of passion still, a wandering breath for ever, went by on that drowsy wind?---
Something of that emotion as of ancestral memories, as of an awakened past, of an unloosening of the imagination, may well come to any imaginative nature encountering suddenly a wild-apple in blossom in some solitary place. To people of a Celtic race or having a dominant Celtic strain, in particular, perhaps; for to the Gael, the Cymru and the Breton the apple-tree is associated with his most sacred traditional beliefs. Of old it was sacrosanct. It was the Celtic Tree of Life, what Yggdrasil was to the ancient dreamers of Scandinavia. He cannot think of it, but of the kingdom of eternal youth : of Emhain Abhlach, of Y-Breasil, of Avalon, of drowned Avillion. It waves over the lost Edens. In Tir-na-n'Og its boughs, heavy with blossoms hang above the foam of the last pale waters of doom. The tired islander, who has put away hunger and weariness and dreams and the old secret desire of the sword, lays himself down below its branches in Flatheanas, and hears the wild harpers of Rinn in a drowsy hum like the hum of wild bees. Grey-haired men and women on the shores of Connemara look out across the dim wave and see the waving of its boughs. The Breton peasant, standing at twilight on the rock-strewn beaches of Tregastèl, will cross himself as he smells the fragrance of apple-blossom coming from sunken isles across the long rolling billows, and remember, perhaps, how of old in moonlit nights he has seen his keel drive through the yielding topmost branches of the woods of Avalon. Many poets have wandered in the secret valleys of Avillion, and have passed under boughs heavy with foam of dreams, and have forgotten all things and been uplifted in joy. In the glens of the Land of Heart's Desire the tired singers of the world have become silent under the windless branches, snow-white in the moonshine, having found the Heart of Song.
The cross and death-coffer of apple-wood, the crown of wild-apple, the apple-staff, the poet's tablets of apple-wood, all the apple-myths and apple-legends, how could one tell of them in a few words. They are in old songs and old tales of all lands. Our Gaelic literature alone is fragrant with apple-bloom, is lovely with the flickering shadow of the apple-leaf, mysterious with symbol of fruit and the apple-wood, that holds life and death in one embrace. Many readers will at once recall that lovely old tale of Bailê the Sweet-spoken and Ailinn Honeymouth, whose love was so great that when in their beautiful youth they died and were buried, one in a grave to the north and one in a grave to the south, grave-wood grew into grave-wood, and green branches from the north and the south became one overhanging branch, under which the winds murmured of passion that winterdeath could not kill nor the hot noons of summer lull into forgetfulness. There is an older and less-known sgeul of how Ana, that most ancient goddess, the Mother, after she had fashioned all the gods, and had made man out of rock and sand and water and the breathing of her breath, made woman out of the body of a wave of the sea and out of foam of apple-blossom and out of the wandering wind. And there are many tales that, in this way or a like way, have in them the mysterious wind of the wild apple, many poems on whose shadowy waters float the rose-flusht snow of the scattered blossoms of dreams and desires. Was not the apple-blossom first stained through the inappeasable longing of a poet-king, who, yet living, bad reached Y Breasil? Ulad saw there a garth of white blossom, and of this he gathered, and warmed all night against his breast, and at dawn breathed into them. When the sunbreak slid a rising line along the dawn he saw that what had been white blooms, made warm by his, breath and flusht by the beating of his heart, was a woman. And how at the end Fand became once more a drift of white blossom upon the deerskin. For, when the longing and the sorrow of all sorrows in the heart of Ulad wrapt his heart in flame, suddenly a wind-eddy scattered the blossoms upon the deerskin, so that they wavered hither and thither, but some were stained by the wandering fires of a rainbow that drifted out of the rose-red thickets of the dawn.
How far back do these apple-legends go? I know not. But when Aphrodite was born of the Idalian foam she held an apple in her hand, as Asia or Eve looked long upon the fruit of life and death in Eden. In Hades itself was it not the lure and the bitterness of Tantalus? All old poems and tales, as I have said, have it, whether as legend, or dream, or metaphor, or as a simile even, as in the seventh-century MS. of the Caïn Adamnain, where Adamnan's old mother cries mo maccansa suut amail bis ubull fo' tuind . . . "my dear son yonder is like an apple on a wave ": [i.e.] little is his hold on the earth. And those of us who have read, and remember, the Prose Edda, will recall how Iduna " keeps in a box, apples, which the gods, when they feel old age approaching, have only to taste to become young again."
Is that too a dream, or is there no Ragnarök for the gods to fear? This at least we know, that as the winter-tide, the death-tide, eternally recurs, so is the foam-white Dream continually rewoven, so everlastingly does Spring come again in the green garment that is the symbol of immortality and wearing the white coronals of blossom which stand for the soul's inalienable hope, for the spirit's incalculable joy. For Avalon is not a dream. It is with us still. It is here indeed, though set within no frontiers, and unlimned in any chart. And even the apples of Iduna grow within reach: the least of us may eat of the fruit---till the coming of Ragnarök.CONTENTS